The Skeptical Environmentalist

The book -- "The Skeptical Environmentalist" -- created quite a stir upon its release in the fall of 2001. Author Bjørn Lomborg, a political scientist and professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, accused scientists and environmental organizations of making false and exaggerated claims about the world's environmental problems. A self-proclaimed environmentalist and skeptic, he claimed that his reanalysis of environmental data measures "the real state of the world."

At first glance, Lomborg's book appeared to be an objective and rigorous scientific analysis, but closer inspection revealed serious flaws. Unfortunately, Dr. Lomborg's book generated extensive media coverage, including favorable reviews in "The Economist," "The New York Times," and "Washington Post." For example, the Post's reviewer concluded that it was "a magnificent achievement," and "the most significant work on the environment since the appearance of its polar opposite, Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring,' in 1962." A briefing for Congress featuring Lomborg was held by the "Cooler Heads Coalition" (formed to dispel the so-called "myth" of global warming), and the author crisscrossed the country on a book tour. Heavily promoted and bearing the imprimatur of the Cambridge University Press, the book and its conclusions gained considerable traction.

Does this book merit such positive attention? Does Lomborg provide new insights? Are his claims supported by the data?

UCS Examines "The Skeptical Environmentalist"

To answer these questions, UCS invited several of the world's leading experts on water resources, biodiversity, and climate change to carefully review the sections in Lomborg's book that address their areas of expertise. We asked them to evaluate whether Lomborg's skepticism is coupled with the other hallmarks of good science -- namely, objectivity, understanding of the underlying concepts, appropriate statistical methods, and careful peer review. Reviewing Lomborg's claims are Dr. Peter Gleick, an internationally recognized expert on the state of freshwater resources; Dr. Jerry Mahlman, one of the most highly regarded atmospheric scientists and climate modelers; and top biologists and biodiversity experts Dr.'s Edward O. Wilson, Thomas Lovejoy, Norman Myers, Jeffrey Harvey and Stuart Pimm.

These separately written expert reviews unequivocally demonstrate that on closer inspection, Lomborg's book is seriously flawed and fails to meet basic standards of credible scientific analysis. The authors find that:

  • Dr. Lomborg consistently misuses, misrepresents or misinterprets data to greatly underestimate rates of species extinction, ignore evidence that billions of people lack access to clean water and sanitation, and minimize the extent and impacts of global warming due to the burning of fossil fuels and other human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases.
  • His assertions and analyses are marred by flawed logic, inappropriate use of statistics, and hidden value judgments.
  • Dr. Lomborg uncritically and selectively cites literature -- often not peer-reviewed -- that supports his assertions, while ignoring or misinterpreting scientific evidence that does not. His consistently flawed use of scientific data is, in Peter Gleick's words "unexpected and disturbing in a statistician."

Other Reviews

Critiques of Lomborg's book have also been published in Scientific American, Nature, Science, and other scientific journals, as well as on several web sites. For your easy access, please find links to a selected number of these resources, below.

Grist Magazine

Scientific American, Misleading Math about Earth

Powered by Convio
nonprofit software